6

I realized I tend to state directly the message/moral of the story in my stories (as dialogue in most of the cases). My plots are rather ambiguous, though. And I use a lot of metaphors/symbols so the connection is not always clear.

Few examples:

Ghost Earthquake

The story is about a girl who misses an earthquake that hits her city. She doesn't remember what she was doing at the time, and nothing seems to have moved a single inch in her apartment. As she tries to uncover the mystery, she comes face to face with her deepest fears, and realizes the world around her is very different to the one she once knew.

Around the middle, the protagonist's boyfriend says (while discussing about earthquakes):

“Maybe what we see around us isn't as solid as we think. In fact, sometimes I think the concept of things being solid is just a human thought. Perhaps nothing is really solid in the universe. Instead, everything's constantly breaking apart, taking a new form.”

The Kid with the Gigaku Mask

About a girl who encounters a mysterious kid while on vacation at the beach. It's a story about ownership and belonging.

At the beginning of the story one of the protagonist's friend says (while discussing about his friend's runaway cat):

“Anyway, those things happen.” Kazuo took a long drink of his beer. “Nothing can be taken for granted. In fact, sometimes I wonder if anything really belongs to us in this world.”

Sushi Break

The story is about a girl who travels every weekend to another city to see her boyfriend. But he cancels every time, so she ends up eating sushi alone in a sushi stand. It's about love, distance, and how happiness can come from the strangest places.

Near the end, the protagonist's friend says (after the protagonist has already stopped questioning the reasons her boyfriend is avoiding her):

“You know,” Faye said, “sometimes I think the best thing to do is to stop trying to think about reasons. You have to stop trying to make sense of your pain, and actually do something to avoid it. If you don't, you'll find all kinds of ways to rationalize it, or find things to temporally fill the void they produce. I'm not saying it's bad. It's OK to find happiness in little things, little experiences. Just remember you gotta keep moving. No matter what. You gotta keep moving.”

Hope these examples helped to illustrate (of course, the characters don't bring the matter all of the sudden. The transition is smooth most of the time).

Some of my favorite writers do this, sometimes. But I'm wondering, is this an example of bad writing?

  • 1
    Statement can work but I also think that demonstrating the moral(s) through the actions of your characters is more powerful...a combination can also work pretty well. Let the action take place and demonstrate, then perhaps the character learns a lesson/has an epiphany via internal dialogue... – James Dec 27 '13 at 15:51
  • I don't know why but the story of Ghost Earthquake reminds me the Chinese film Re-Cycle. Is it inspired by the movie? – user6242 Dec 27 '13 at 21:11
  • @Saint Cycle I checked the Wikipedia entry. Are you sure they share similarities? As far as I can tell, Re-Cycle is about a novelist who experiences the supernatural events found in her novel. Ghost Earthquake is about a girl who is trying to find out why she's the only one who didn't feel the earthquake that just struck her city. – Alexandro Chen Dec 27 '13 at 23:45
  • @AlexandroChen: Did you see the movie? It is very interesting. I think in the both stories the idea of a/an storm/earthquake which is powered by the main character's "mind" seems similar. Unfortunately I didn't read your novels but I think they have really interesting main ideas and almost all of them are closely related to the eastern philosophies. – user6242 Dec 28 '13 at 8:37
  • @Saint Georg Thanks for the info. I'll check it out. – Alexandro Chen Dec 30 '13 at 14:39
7

Ayn Rand was pretty explicit about the morals of her stories, and she sold twenty metric gajillion copies of her novels, so it’s clearly an approach that can work. But I think it’s an inferior technique. If the events of your story clearly illustrate the moral that you’re hoping to express, you don’t need to state it explicitly (although if it would be in-character for one of your characters to make that kind of observation, that’s acceptable). If the events don’t illustrate the moral, then stating it explicitly is making an unproven assertion.

The Israeli novelist Amos Oz once said that if he has a question and he knows the answer to it, he writes an essay, but if he has a question and doesn’t know the answer, he writes a novel. That’s an approach worth considering, too.

  • 2
    I'm not sure whether I should be happy or sad about the Ayn Rand comment: xkcd.com/1049. – Alexandro Chen Dec 27 '13 at 14:41
  • 2
    In movie criticism, a scene where a character states the movie's message explicitly is referred to as a "Moment of Shit." (Bonus points for hokey dramatic music and lighting.) – MissMonicaE Jul 28 '15 at 19:47
  • I lean more towards agreement with Rand's ideas than towards disagreement, but I agree that the speeches in her novels were tedious, and a lot of the dialogue she wrote was clumsy. – EvilSnack Feb 7 at 3:26
  • But the Oz quote states an important truth: The whole {filtered} point of a philosophical novel is to communicate an idea without explicitly stating it. – EvilSnack Feb 7 at 3:30
4

Many of my favourite authors are my favourites because their novels are ripe with great philosophical ideas. What you call your "message" is a philosophical idea. Reading your story, I might not understand it as the message of your story at all, but rather as a bonus, that does not prevent me from understanding the story in a completely different way.

Having a character (or the narrator) reflect and comment on the events, does not make these comments the only possible interpretation in the mind of a reader. The only danger I see is that an author writes with a raised finger: dear reader, let me tell you what you must learn from this story. You might want to avoid that, because your readers will want to resist your preaching. I call this the "but-induction": If you state a supposedly universal truth, every thinking person automatically contradicts you. "Smoking is unhealthy." "Yes, but ... ."

If you really want to educate your readers and lead them to your conclusion, you must let them experience your truth. The best learning is always through experience. But if your "message" is provided as interesting thought that you allow the reader to consider and either adopt or discard, then I don't see a problem.

3

As I understand, this is done all the time for television scripts. For instance, when Star Trek characters are discussing new aliens or territories, their discussions go over some basic facts. Maybe they are confirming their knowledge, in theory. In reality, the reason they say many of these things is for the audience benefit. If the audience is enjoying what you produce, and they don't have a problem with noticing anything unrealistic/out-of-character, and the details help the audience to know something that the audience needs to know, then this is a good thing. (That's my answer to the last paragraph in the question.)

However, this approach can also be a dangerous thing. One key item to remember is to keep things within character. If the text doesn't fit the character, then change it. Or have someone else say it. (Maybe a new, and possibly temporary, character.) Or have them say it at a a more appropriate time.

Be careful when trying to explain something for audience benefit. For instance, a famous radio broadcast had a fictitious astronaut explain weightlessness (when out of orbit) to another astronaut. That just feels absurd for modern society, where more of us do know about weightlessness, and we know that any astronaut would not need to receive such an explanation.

There is another aspect to keep in mind: show, don't tell.

I've been taught that the best writing won't say that the weather was hot. The best writing will include sweat drops, and someone seeking shelter, and being happy about the shade.

Here's some specific feedback to the specific examples you provided in the question:

In two of the three examples in this question, the text "sometimes I think" shows up. In the other example, there is "sometimes I wonder". I also see a "we think", a "perhaps", and a "I'm not saying". Such thoughts and wondering just feels a little insubstantial. The writing may appear a bit stronger if you can give it some more substance. Your characters can wonder, and speculate. But their thoughts will appear stronger if you can reduce how much they speculate, because they can draw upon related solid life experiences (that happened earlier). If the character has sufficient observation skills (and the ability to learn from what is observed), those life experiences could even be experienced by someone else.

  • Indeed. As I recall, the movie version of "The Magic Christian" began with a prologue telling the audience that it was all about money. Lots of it. The accompanying song, "If you want it, here it is..." reinforced the concept. The movie was based on an actual novel, but I don't know if the book began that way. Maybe it did! – user23046 May 8 '17 at 0:22
  • A cartoonist depicted a Trek character smugly declaring that they have abolished poverty, greed, disease and discrimination, to which the cartoonist replied that this made him want to ask, "Where do they keep the death camps?" – EvilSnack Jul 13 '17 at 3:40
1

Fundamentally, a story is a an experience. Strictly speaking, an experience does not have a meaning. Different people may reach different conclusions based on the experience they have had, just as they may with real life experiences. The novelist should be content to create an experience that is true, regardless of the conclusions people draw from it.

Of course, in many cases the novelist want the reader to draw a particular conclusion -- the conclusion they think must necessarily follow from the experience. But the novelist does not trust the reader to draw that same conclusion. What are they to do?

  • They can state the conclusion. The problem here is that merely stating the conclusion is not particularly likely to make the person who had the experience that novelist created suddenly draw the same conclusion just because the writer stated it. If the reader shares the conclusion, they may cheer the novelist for stating it. (Some highly doctrinaire readers clearly want this statement to put an exclamation point on the story. The trouble with these folks it they are really only in it for the conclusion and are disappointed in the whole story if they don't get the conclusion they were after. It the writer does not share the conclusion, however, it is likely to sour them on the whole experience of the story. In other words, if you only want to preach to the choir, go ahead and state your conclusion.

  • They can manipulate the experience to try to get the reader to reach the conclusion the writer is after. The problem with this is that now the experience is no longer truthful. It has been manipulated to produce a conclusion. Most readers will detect this and devalue the story. Only those who are only in it to have their own conclusions affirmed are likely to stay around.

Forcing your conclusions into the open, therefore, is not likely to change anybody's mind. Your best chance of changing people's minds is probably simply to present a truthful experience and let people draw their own conclusions.

1

I see message and moral as two very different things. The latter can come to be when the author (usually through the narrator) tells the reader 'you should not do this, you should do that'. In my opinion, the right place of a stated moral is in fables, everywhere else turns the text into a more or less subtle preaching.

Another way of using moral is when the consequence clearly shows how an action is bad and the reader should avoid it (eg. a teenager starts using drugs and ends up dying from that habit). This is (again IMO) the only good way to present a moral outside a fable.

Then we've got the message. Now, it's true that a moral is a message, but a message doesn't have to be a moral. For me, a message isn't saying 'you should or shouldn't X', it's making a statement about the world through the events in the story. The reader may or may not agree with you, but it's still a likely statement.

Again, there are two ways of going about it, the good and the bad. The way I see it, having a narrator state it clearly is the bad one. The good one is threefold:

  1. The event can speak for itself. This, obviously, is the best approach. Let the readers draw conclusions for themselves.

  2. (part I) A character can mention it. Ideally, it's only mentioned once amid other stuff and not dwelled upon. Ideally, it's softened by the character stating it's their personal opinion (I think, the way I see it, if you ask me, ...) and not forcing it down anyone's throat. Ideally, the idea comes out as an organic whole with the events.

    (part II) A character can state it, even forcefully, if it's presented as that character's personal conclusions for a given event or life in general. The narrator cannot agree with the character, but rather remain impartial (or maybe disagree). Other characters may disagree or they may be won over and consider it before later on disagreeing, choosing a variation of the statement or wholy embracing it. The important thing is that these are the characters' conclusions and the reader doesn't have to agree with them (hence the narrator not taking any sides)

  3. The narrator can mention it, but only if neither the event nor the characters can make it evident. Ideally, it's as soft and unobtrusive as possible.

The most important thing is to make sure it doesn't sound preachy or imposing in the slightest. Subtlety is any message's best friend. So, if anyone mentions the message, the events must be ambiguous enough that the message would go unnoticed for many readers if nothing were said on the topic.

In the examples you offer, I think they seem to work very well (although I'd need to read the whole thing to be certain, obviously). I rather like when characters react to events by saying 'sometimes I think [universal truth that may be not-universal at all]'. Besides, you've got characters giving advise to friends and just stating their own personal thoughts, not imposing them, and often not at the end but in the middle or half-way. Pointing at messages at the end always makes them more obvious (and more similar to a moral).

So, no, it's not a bad idea to state the message of a story if you do it well.

-1

It's absolutely fine to state the moral explicitly, as in your examples. It's also absolutely fine not to.

If you DON'T spell it out, many readers won't 'get it'. Think of some of the earliest 'short stories', the parables found in the Bible and similar books of other religions. What message would you take from 'The Prodigal Son' if the moral wasn't explicitly explained?

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